In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Italian Colonial Rule

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Works
  • Primary Sources
  • Tianjin
  • Institutions and Scientific Associations
  • Agricultural and “Demographic” Colonization
  • Atrocities
  • Racial, Native, and Ethnic Policies
  • Gender, Sex, and Kinship
  • Religious Policies
  • Archeology and Tourism
  • The Built Environment
  • Italian Colonial Culture
  • Oral History and Subaltern Histories
  • Legacies and Omissions

African Studies Italian Colonial Rule
Mia Fuller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0150


Italian colonialism took its first step in 1869, with the acquisition of a strip of land at Aseb (Assab) on the Red Sea. However modest, this was a bold move in light of the fact that the Italian state had only been formed in 1861 and was still on its way to seizing its future capital, Rome, from the Papal States in 1870. Only after France seized Tunis from the Ottoman Empire in 1882, however, did Italians’ expansionist sentiment truly flourish. Given its large Italian population, they had expected that Tunis should be theirs. This “loss” instigated competitive motivations, leading to Italy’s first military colonial occupation, in 1885, of Massawa (Mits’iwa, Massaua), also on the Red Sea, and eventually to the establishment of Italy’s first colony, Eritrea, in 1890. Small acquisitions in what later became Italian Somalia began in the 1890s. Meanwhile, Italian forces encroached on areas under the Ethiopian emperor’s control, prompting the humiliating defeat of the Italian forces at Adwa (Adua, Adowa) in 1896. For reasons both geopolitical and symbolic—such as invoking Roman antiquity to fortify the young nation—expansionists argued for the necessity of a Mediterranean colony and a “return” to empire. Italy’s attack on Ottoman-ruled Tripoli in November 1911 is widely thought to have been the world’s first instance of aerial bombardment. Control over Tripolitania and Cyrenaica took two decades to solidify; only in 1934, after a protracted war on the Sanusi confraternity and the Bedouins of Cyrenaica, did Italy consolidate the two coastal provinces with the Fezzan interior and call the whole Libya. Italian rule in the Dodecanese Islands, seized from the Sublime Porte in 1912, was largely peaceful by comparison. Shortly before Mussolini sent troops to support Franco in the Spanish Civil War, Italy successfully attacked Ethiopia—a member of the League of Nations—“avenging” Adwa and completing the attempt made in the 1890s. While Cyrenaica is renowned as a site of Italian-perpetrated genocide, in Ethiopia (also referred to as Abyssinia) Italians are notorious for having used chemical weapons and massacred clerics. The sixth and final colonial holding of the “least of the Great Powers” was Albania, annexed in 1939. Although not a colony, Italy held a share of the European concession in Tianjin (China) starting in 1901. It lost all its colonial territories in the course of the Second World War, starting in East Africa in 1941, continuing in Libya in 1943, and finally with the fall of fascism and surrender. Official loss of colonial rights came with treaties formalized by Italy’s new government in 1947. Some of Italy’s colonial-era ties were temporarily perpetuated during its United Nations trusteeship of Somalia from 1950 to 1960.

General Overviews

Scholars have written few general overviews of Italian colonialism. Two principal reasons for this are the specific way in which the period ended and the general delay in scholarship on the subject. The colonial era concluded abruptly and mid-war, without any political or intellectual process. What followed, amid a restructuring of Italy in the wake of fascist collapse and a realignment of Right and Left, was an informational lapse. Archives continued to turn up, hidden in basements, for years; cataloguing and indexing were very slow; but perhaps more important, it was in no one’s interest to scrutinize the colonial record in a country divided between mutually recriminating camps of fascist loyalists and communists. Archival access was nearly impossible for decades, which is why all scholars in the field are indebted to the pioneers who first succeeded in overcoming bureaucratic and political stonewalling. Battaglia 1958 (cited under Ethiopia and Italian East Africa) inaugurated post-fascist historiography. Angelo Del Boca and Giorgio Rochat, above all, uncovered evidence of atrocities, although—as a result of the state’s decades-long denial and silence—many Italians still deny that these occurred. Difficulties obtaining archival materials, and these problems of reception, account for the slow development of scholarship. It is perhaps not surprising that the first overview, Miège 1968, was by a non-Italian, who relied on published sources of the colonial period. Also using published sources, Rochat 1973 presented a historical, political, and cultural narrative accompanied by primary texts that still stands coherently today as a fundamental introduction. Meanwhile, by the late 1960s Angelo Del Boca had published documentation confirming Italians’ use of mustard gas in Ethiopia, which was finally acknowledged by Italian officialdom in 1996 (Del Boca 1996, cited under Atrocities). Substantial overviews have begun to appear quite recently: Labanca 2002 was the first detailed and comprehensive work; more recently still, Calchi Novati 2011 is more synthetic and appropriate for a somewhat broader audience in addition to historians. In English, Mack Smith 1976 covers the fascist years (1922–1943) and Mussolini’s imperialism, and Ben-Ghiat and Fuller 2005 (cited under Anthologies) gives a sampling of work by many authors represented in this Bibliography.

  • Calchi Novati, Giampaolo. L’Africa d’Italia: Una storia coloniale e postcoloniale. Rome: Carocci, 2011.

    Overview of Italian rule in North and East Africa, and a good accompaniment to Labanca 2002. The principal author (who enlisted a number of credited coauthors) is a sub-Saharan specialist, and the Horn of Africa is somewhat foregrounded. Unlike Labanca 2002, incorporates African scholarly sources.

  • Labanca, Nicola. Oltremare: Storia dell’espansione coloniale italiana. Bologna, Italy: Il Mulino, 2002.

    The first comprehensive overview after Rochat 1973, this is both a history and an explicit engagement with scholarship to that point. Landmark work comprising innovative discussions of economics and demographics. Stands out for its critical position concerning Italians’ racist behavior in the colonies. Useful as an introduction and a reference, thanks to its bibliographic appendix.

  • Mack Smith, Denis. Mussolini’s Roman Empire. New York: Viking, 1976.

    Puts Italy’s fascist-era colonial pursuits in the context of fascist imperialism and wars more generally, from the Spanish Civil War through the Second World War. Not very revealing regarding the colonies themselves, and unfortunately undermined by author’s tone of contempt toward the Italian dictator.

  • Miège, Jean-Louis. L’impérialisme colonial italien de 1870 à nos jours. Paris: Société d’édition d’enseignement supérieur, 1968.

    The earliest overview, based primarily on diplomatic and military materials, including French and British diplomatic archives; somewhat outdated.

  • Rochat, Giorgio. Il colonialismo italiano. Turin, Italy: Loescher, 1973.

    The second earliest overview (after Miège 1968), and still pertinent. Combines essential short primary texts with a synthetic outline of events and topics, making it the best medium-length introduction.

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